MAUREEN DUFFY 1969
Rites, by British playwright Maureen Duffy, was first performed in 1969, at the National Theatre Repertory Company in London. The play takes place in a woman’s public restroom, and has an all-female cast. The characters are representative working class women of London, including the restroom manager and attendant, three office workers, and two widows in their sixties. The action and dialogue of the play reveal the anger and resentment the women feel toward men in their romantic and sexual relationships, and at work. The play finally erupts in a few moments of frenzied violence in which the women kill someone they believe to be a male spy, only to find that their victim is a woman.
Rites is very loosely based on The Bacchae, a play by the ancient Greek dramatist, Euripides, which describes the conflict between the largely female worshipers of the god Dionysus and the male representatives of law and order in the city of Thebes. Like Rites, The Bacchae culminates in a frenzied killing by a group of women.
Rites was written at a time when the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s was gathering strength. Like the women’s movement, the play exposes the stifling effects on women of gender stereotypes at many levels of society.
Maureen Duffy was born on October 21, 1933, in Worthing, Sussex, England, the daughter of Cahia Patrick Duffy and Grace Rose Wright. She grew up in an impoverished environment, and at age six, when World War II broke out, she was evacuated with her mother to Trowbridge in Wiltshire. When she was fourteen, she returned to the family home in Stratford, London. After leaving grammar school, Duffy taught for two years at the City Literary Institute, Drury Lane, London, before going to King’s College, London. After graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in English, Duffy taught creative writing for five years in state schools.
Since the 1960s, Duffy has distinguished herself as a poet, playwright, novelist, and biographer. Her first play, The Lay-Off, was produced at the City of London Festival, 1961, and her first novel, the autobiographical That’s How It Was, followed in 1962. Her first poetry collection was Lyrics for the Dog Hour (1968). This was the first of five volumes of poetry; her Collected Poems was published in 1985. Duffy’s second play, The Silk Room, was produced in England at Watford Civic Theatre in 1966, and Rites was produced by the National Theatre Repertory Company in London in 1969. Later plays include A Nightingale in Bloomsbury Square, produced at Hampstead Theatre in 1974.
Duffy’s novels have won critical praise in the United States as well as Great Britain. Among her major novels are Wounds (1969), about two lovers and the emotional pain they experience; Love Child (1971), set in Italy with a child narrator; Housespy, an espionage thriller (1978); and Gor Saga (1981), a fable set in the near future, which critics compared favorably to works by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Other novels include The Microcosm (1966), about lesbianism; All Heaven in a Rage (1973), about animal rights; and The Paradox Players (1967), about a writer who seeks isolation on a houseboat on the Thames during a winter in the 1960s.
More recent work includes the novels Illuminations (1991), which follows a retired female history lecturer to newly reunified Germany, where she acquires a lesbian lover; and Occam’s Razor (1993), in which Duffy juxtaposes the history of the terrorist group, the Irish Republican Army, with the activities of the Italian Mafia. Her most recent novel is Restitution (1998).
Duffy has also written a work of literary criticism, The Erotic World of Faery (1989), and a biography, The Passionate Shepherdess: The Life of Aphra Behn, 1640-1689 (2000).
Her awards include the City of London Festival Playwright’s Award, 1962, for The Lay-Off; and a Society of Authors travelling scholarship in 1976. She was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1985.
Duffy has been active in the causes in which she believes. In 1972, she co-founded the Writers Action Group, which successfully lobbied for the passage of the Public Lending Right, under which authors received royalties from a public fund whenever their work was borrowed from public libraries. Duffy has also been active in animal rights causes.
Rites begins with a procession of workmen dressed in white overalls, who construct the walls and cubicles of a public lavatory (the British term for restroom). They then bring in a large mirror, toilet bowls, and cisterns. They bang and hammer away, and this is followed by a sound of simultaneous flushing. The workmen then bring two large chairs, a notice about venereal disease clinics, a sanitary towel machine, and a perfume spray.
Two women enter. Meg begins cleaning, while Ada, the manager of the facility, sits at the mirror and begins putting on her make-up, admiring the results.
As she cleans, Meg complains about her job. She hopes that Ada will get her expected promotion and take her with her, but Ada refuses to promise anything. Ada discusses the man she was with the previous night; it becomes clear that by night she is a prostitute. She spends so much time at the mirror because she wants to make the best of what she has, so that she can charge a higher price.
Meg and Ada turn away an old woman who normally eats her breakfast in one of the cubicles because the woman is too early and they are not yet open. Meg admires Ada for being clever and Ada says she learns what she knows from the financial pages of the newspaper. Meg, however, is more interested in the daily horoscopes and persuades Ada to read some of them to her.
After the old woman returns and goes to the first cubicle to eat, three office girls enter, chattering about the date one of them had the previous night. After using the toilets, the second office girl and Norma complain to Ada about obscene graffiti on the walls. The three girls claim to be shocked and say that only men could have done it.
Meg takes up her knitting; the finished product will be a Christmas gift for a man, and Ada chides her for taking so long to complete it. The conversations continue in a disjointed kind of way. Norma announces that she wants to take the day off work; Ada reads some financial news out loud; Norma recites something from a romance novel she memorized, and Ada responds by talking to Norma about relations between the sexes in terms of assets and takeover bids. The office girls discuss a newspaper advice column and one girl cracks a joke that makes them all scream with laughter.
Nellie and Dot, two respectably dressed women in their sixties, enter. Nellie remarks how she used to clean her husband’s shoes every day of their life together. The office girls say they would never do that, but acknowledge how different things were for women of that generation. Norma remarks how terrible it must be to be old. Nellie continues to describe the dull routine she shared with her late husband. As the women talk about baldness, hair and wigs, the office girls get Elizabeth I (who wore a wig) mixed up with another historical figure, Mary Queen of Scots, who was beheaded.
Norma complains about being at the beck and call of her boss, and Ada says she wouldn’t stand for it. But the girls say their office jobs are better than being on a factory production line or in the typing pool. Ada proudly says that she works for no man, and Nellie comments that her husband would not allow her to work. Now she and Dot are widowed, but they manage to keep themselves occupied with shopping and other trips. They have their pensions so do not have financial worries, which prompts Norma to remark that it sounds as if they are better off without their husbands. Taking up the topic of men, the first office girl complains that you cannot talk to them, unless they are married.
After more conversation, a girl comes in, buys a towel from the machine and goes to the second cubicle. The women discuss the matter of privacy, and Dot explains that there is more privacy than in the “gents” lavatory and describes how she once went to one.
Two women enter, leading in a toddler boy (who is represented by a realistic doll). The first woman picks him up and makes a fuss of him, while the other women make some observations: Nellie says they grow up too fast, while Ada thinks that some of them never do, and tells the woman that the toddler is too old to be brought into the women’s restroom. Meg wonders how Ada knows the toddler is a boy, since according to Nellie he looks more like a girl. They decide to find out. Ada takes down the boy’s trousers and his loose, long-legged pants. The women make remarks about his penis, and Ada even alludes to castration, but then they say they mean no harm and are only looking. The two women dress the boy, and Ada bitterly criticizes the others’ attitudes toward love and relationships.
There is a crash from the second cubicle. The women ask the girl inside if she is all right, but there is no answer. The third office girl crouches down and looks under the door. The girl inside has her head in the pan, and blood is visible. After some discussion of what they should do, the third office girl climbs up and gets into the cubicle and opens it from the inside. The women haul the girl out and discover that she has cut her wrists, but the damage appears to be superficial. The girl calls out the name of a man and then cries. She has obviously been Page 218 | Top of Articlejilted. Ada shouts “B———men!” and the others follow with their bitter complaints about men.
Except for Ada and the stricken girl, the women then begin to dance the latest version of a dance called the shake. They chant that they do not need men. As they dance, the derelict old woman who has been eating her breakfast in the first cubicle, emerges. The women encircle her and aggressively sing a song called “Knees up Mother Brown.” This is repeated until it reaches a frenzy, and the old woman cowers in fear.
Then another figure, dressed like a man, emerges from one of the cubicles and tries to run to the exit. Ada calls him a spy, and all the women, including the old woman who has just been tormented, fall upon the figure. During a violent scuffle, there is a scream and then another cry. The crowd of women breaks apart, revealing a tattered figure wrapped in bloody clothing. Horrified, Norma announces that it was a woman, not a man. The other women are shocked. They decide to stuff the body down the incinerator.
The lavatory gradually empties. The office girls help the injured girl to her feet and leave. Nellie and Dot go back to discussing their hats, and then they leave also. Ada tells the two women with the toddler to leave. Ada then shoos the old woman away and goes back to the mirror and retouches her make-up. Meg resumes her cleaning, and she and Ada continue the kind of conversation they were having when the play began.
Ada is the manager of the public lavatory. She is much concerned with her own appearance, spending a lot of time in front of the mirror putting on make-up. By night she works as a prostitute, and she reasons that the more attractively she can present herself, the higher the price she will be able to charge. She prides herself on her independence, and could not stand to be at the beck and call of a man. She deals with men on her own terms and is contemptuous of them. Ada is worldly wise and well informed. She always studies the financial page of the newspaper and applies to her own profession the marketing advice it provides. She reads a lot and possesses enough general knowledge to correct the office girls when they get Queen Elizabeth I mixed up with Mary Queen of Scots. Ada is also the strongest character in the play, by virtue both of her position as manager and her leadership qualities. It is Ada who initiates the attack on the woman who looks like a man, at which point she reveals the full force of her hatred of men. After the killing, Ada blames the victim for looking like a man. She takes charge of the situation, telling the other women how to dispose of the body and shooing the women out. She then sits down at the table and goes back to doing her make-up.
Dot is a respectably dressed woman in her sixties. She can hardly be distinguished from her friend Nellie, although Dot speaks much less frequently. Like Nellie, Dot is a widow, but she and Nellie find ways to pass the time and make the best of things. Being a widow has its advantages, since there is no husband around to ask her where all the money has gone. Dot’s longest speech is when she describes in detail the occasion she used a men’s lavatory. Like Nellie, her marriage followed a traditional pattern. The wife was expected to look after her husband, to minister to him. But it is clear that this was not very fulfilling for Dot, since she says that what makes marriage worthwhile is not the marriage itself but the children.
First Office Girl
First Office Girl is the one with the sense of humor. Several times she makes jokes that produce screams of laughter from the other office girls. Other than that, she is not much different from the others. She shares their disdain for men, believing that it must have been a man who wrote the graffiti on the wall of the cubicle because no woman would do so. She also says you cannot talk to men unless they are married. She likes to think she is independent, saying that, unlike Nellie, no one would catch her cleaning anyone else’s boots like Nellie did for her husband. Like the others, she does not like her job but thinks it is better than the alternatives.
First Woman is one of two women who enter the lavatory with the toddler boy. She is his mother and dotes on him. She thinks it is a pity he has to grow up. After the women have partially undressed Page 219 | Top of Articlethe toddler and examined him, First Woman dresses him. After this, she leaves the boy (represented by a doll) on a chair and joins the group.
The Girl enters one of the cubicles and slashes her wrists. She is unconscious and bleeding as the other women haul her out. She comes to and calls out the name Desmond, and then cries incoherently. At the end, she is helped out of the lavatory by the three office girls.
Meg works as a cleaner in the public lavatory. She does not like her job, although she works hard at it and is proud of how clean the place is. She admires and looks up to Ada, who is younger than she, and also her supervisor. She hopes that when Ada gets a promotion, Ada will be able to offer her a new job. Like the other women, Meg does not have a high opinion of men. She says of the toddler, “It’s a pity they have to grow up.” Meg’s marital status is unclear. She may be a widow or divorcee, since she says, cryptically, “I was better off without him.” She also says that no one ever wanted her, “except one night behind the gas works and he was a bit simple.” Meg is not as sophisticated as Ada; she likes to read the horoscopes in the newspaper and never bothers with the financial news.
Nellie, like her friend Dot, is a respectably dressed widow in her sixties. She describes in some detail the predictable routine of her thirty-six-year marriage. She cleaned her husband’s shoes every day, always bought him fish on a Friday and cooked it exactly the way he liked it. He would not let her work outside the home, saying he would sooner die than not be able to keep her. Every day she would wait all day at home for him to return from work. Nellie and Dot have adapted well to widowhood, although when Norma suggests they are better off than when they were married, Nellie and Dot both react with horror. Nellie does not care for some things in the modern world, such as the way young people dress, or the fact that young mothers go out to work and put their children in nursery schools. Nellie says that her generation of women were happy to have their children around for as long as possible.
See Second Office Girl
The Old Woman is a derelict who likes to go to the public lavatory to eat her breakfast. When she comes out of the cubicle, the other women call her Old Mother Brown, and dance around her. She is frightened and holds her bag to her head to protect herself. But when the women attack the figure that looks like a man, the Old Woman also joins in.
Second Office Girl
Norma appears not to share the hostile attitudes to men that most of the other characters have. She is the only one of the office girls to have a regular boyfriend, Eddy. Norma is a romantic, and can quote passages from romance novels, and recite romantic verses she learned at school. She is not wildly in love with Eddy, referring to him as merely “all right,” but she appears to have a high level of tolerance for his idiosyncrasies. Norma has a sharp temper, and threatens to scratch Ada’s eyes out if Ada speaks to her the way she spoke to one of the other girls. Norma is also squeamish, and the sight of the girl with the bloody wrists makes her feel ill. Like the other girls, she does secretarial work, but is fed up with always having to do what her boss wants.
Second Woman enters with First Woman and the toddler boy. She says little but her negative view of men is clear: she regards them all as babies.
Third Office Girl
Third Office Girl used to work on a factory production line. She prefers her current office job and seems to like it more than the other girls do. She likes the view from the window and the chances they get to laugh and chat when their male boss leaves the room. It is she who climbs into the cubicle where the bleeding girl is, spraining her ankle in the process. She also complains that she got her shoes and her stockings wet. Third Office Girl is the one who near the end of the play sets up the chant “We don’t need them,” about men.
Third Woman appears only at the end of the play. She emerges from one of the cubicles and rushes to the exit. She has short hair, wears a suit and a coat, and looks like a man. The other women fall on her and kill her.
Feminism and Gender Stereotypes
At the heart of the play is the idea of gender stereotyping, in which the roles and attitudes of the sexes follow highly predictable patterns. Since it is men who set the rules and design them for their own advantage, this breeds frustration, resentment, and ultimately murderous rage in the women who congregate at the public lavatory. The negative picture presented of men is almost unrelenting, and includes the world of work, sex, relationships, and the home.
The office girls, for example, have dull, repetitive jobs in which they are at the beck and call of male bosses. But their minds are so impoverished, so crushed by the accepted notions of what women can do, that they have no ideas about what else they might aspire to. All they know is that the jobs they do have are better than the available alternatives, such as working on a factory production line. Being aware of one’s dissatisfaction but lacking the capacity to imagine anything better is a recipe for frustration and a stunted life.
Norma’s best solution, inspired by television advertising, is simply to take the day off and go to the beach. She and the other girls are lulled by the sentimental cliches fed to them by the male-dominated culture and also by the harmless diversions they are offered. Norma soaks up the soft pornography of romance novels that are aimed at women by the publishing industry, and the girls also lap up the conventional, moralistic advice about relationships with men that are offered to them by newspaper advice columns. The treachery of men is somehow enshrined and made harmless in little romantic rhymes that Norma learned at school. That is, until one of the office girls describes the reality of a man’s attitude to her as a young, single woman: “You’re all right till you’re stuck with a kid then they don’t want to know.”
Men are presented through the eyes of the women as nothing more than big babies who are obsessed with sex. Pornography and sexual Page 221 | Top of Articleperversions are the realm of men. “Only men, only men, only men do that,” chant the office girls in unison. And when the first office girl discovers the obscene graffiti on the cubicle walls, she assumes it must have been written by a man because no decent woman would write such things. The stereotypes conveyed are that men just want sex, whereas women want romance and family.
From the point of view of the females in this play, men are selfish when it comes to sex, and their performance also leaves much to be desired. “Eddy always falls dead asleep after,” says Norma, and Dot thinks of the male orgasm as “only like a sneeze, when all’s said and done.”
Men in their turn have a low opinion of women’s intelligence, at least according to Ada, who, as she studies the financial pages of the newspaper, says contemptuously, “They think we don’t read that far.” The “they” in question are the men who produce the newspapers. The underlying stereotype is that the realm of business and finance belongs to men; women are content with the “women’s pages” that discuss clothes, recipes, relationships, and the like.
The gender roles of the older generation, as represented by Nellie and Dot, are similarly fixed in stone. Men go to work; women wait all day for them to come home, occupying themselves, in the opinion of one of the office girls, sweeping and tidying and washing. The role of the wife is simply to make her husband comfortable, never to point out his faults or hurt his pride. Everything follows a predictable routine. Now widowed, Nellie and Dot seem in some respects to have more rewarding lives than they did when they were married. Although they do not have any directly unkind words to say about their dead husbands, they do let slip the fact that now there is no one to dock their housekeeping money after a bad week, or to ask where all the money has gone.
The younger generation of women feel the same pressure to conform to long-established roles. Women must defer to men. If a man steps on a woman’s feet as they dance, says one office girl, she is the one who apologizes. The man’s masculine pride must not be threatened.
Gender stereotypes emerge again when the girl with the slashed wrists is discovered. Nellie immediately says they must call a man because a man will be able to break the door down. Second Woman wants to get a policeman. The underlying stereotype is that in a crisis, you need a man. But Ada will not hear of this, and the women manage to solve the problem well enough on their own; brute strength is not always needed.
The gender stereotypes permeate society at all levels and are constantly reinforced. They can be found, for example, in the words of the nineteenthcentury nursery rhyme that the women quote: little girls are made of “Sugar and spice and all things nice,” whereas little boys are made of “Sni ps and snails and puppy dogs’ tails.”
Everything points to a rigid segregation of society along gender lines, and the relationship between the sexes is one of antagonism. This is learned in childhood, as the first office girl makes clear: “Like in the playground, boys against girls. Them onto us.”
The segregated public lavatories, in which the men’s lavatory is an unknown, mysterious place to the women, thus becomes a metaphor for the basic divisions in society. “It’s time he stuck to his own side of the fence,” says Meg of the toddler boy who has been brought by his mother to the lavatory.
Given the resentment that women in the play feel toward men—which is most exemplified in Ada—the outrage and madness that takes hold of them when they see what they think is a man emerging from one of the cubicles is not so surprising. The women’s lavatory is their domain; it is one of the few places where women can be in control. The invasion of their private space is likely to provoke a violent response.
But the play does not endorse the women’s violence. Since their victim turns out to be a woman, this suggests that mindlessly attacking men, or what men represent, will only hurt women, too. Duffy says as much in her introduction to the play:
In the very moment when the women have got their own back on men for their type-casting in an orgasm of violence they find they have destroyed themselves and in death there is certainly no difference.
The language of the play reveals the characters to be working class women from London or the Page 222 | Top of ArticleLondon suburbs. This is apparent from a number of ungrammatical expressions. The clearest example is Ada, who says, “I’ve stuck me pencil in me eye”; the “me” is a nonstandard version of “my.” The characters use many slang expressions, some of which may be unfamiliar to American ears. “Copped,” as in “copped the whole roll” means seized or stolen. “French letter” is British slang for a condom; a “conker,” as in Nellie’s comment that her husband’s shoes “shone like conkers” is the fruit of the horse chestnut tree. In the fall, British schoolchildren play a game called conkers with these fruits. “Bloke” is working class slang for man, the equivalent of the American use of “guy.” It is more common in southern than northern England.
Realism and Fantasy
Duffy commented in her introduction that the play was deliberately “pitched between fantasy and naturalism.” The public lavatory in which the play is set is “as real as in a vivid dream.”
The realistic elements in the play are many and include the setting. This kind of public lavatory, with its malfunctioning toilets, graffiti-covered walls, and lingering derelict, can be found in most cities. The relationships between the characters, such as Ada and Meg (Meg’s admiration of Ada; Ada’s slightly amused tolerance of Meg), form another realistic element. The three office girls, with their superficial banter, will be familiar to anyone who has worked in a London office. There is realism too in the mundane things the characters discuss, the cliches they use, and the fully believable kinds of lives they describe. The incident in which the girl slashes her wrists is also grimly realistic.
To that naturalism, Duffy adds some fantastic elements: the incinerator for the sanitary towels, for example, which Meg imagines she can hear roaring like a “great furnace, a wild beast.” Fantastic too is how the women dispose of the body of the woman they have killed by cramming it into the steel flap that opens into the incinerator.
Another fantastic element is the toddler boy represented by a doll, the masculine-looking woman who is attacked and killed, and the wild frenzy that takes hold of these otherwise very ordinary women as they commit their deadly act.
The result of the skillful combination of fantasy and naturalism is an unusual concoction that serves as an example of Aristotle’s remark, quoted by Duffy in her introduction: “For poetic (i.e., artistic) effect a convincing impossibility is preferable to that which is unconvincing though possible.”
The Women’s Movement in Britain
When Duffy wrote Rites in 1969, the modern women’s movement in Britain was just beginning to make an impact. This was a period of rapid social change; economic growth meant that women were entering the workforce in increasing numbers, and there was an expansion in higher education that led to increased job opportunities and higher expectations on the part of women. The emerging women’s liberation movement, as it was known, campaigned for equal pay and equal opportunity in education and employment; abortion rights; day care; free contraception (through what was popularly known as “the pill”); and an end to sexism, gender stereotyping, domestic violence, and discrimination against lesbians.
Much of the women’s movement was organized in local, women-only groups that linked with others through newsletters and national conferences. The First National Women’s Liberation Conference was held in Oxford in 1970. In 1971, the biggest ever women’s march took place in London.
The emphasis in the women’s movement was on “consciousness-raising” (sharing ideas about women’s experiences), direct action in support of causes, and women’s self-help. In keeping with the popular feminist slogan, “the personal is the political,” women examined their own private lives, including attitudes about reproduction and sexual expression, since many believed that the root of the subordination of women was in these areas of personal life.
In 1970, Germaine Greer, an Australian feminist living in England, published The Female Eunuch, which argued that patriarchal social structures, in alliance with capitalism, had forced women into stereotypical, subordinate roles. Greer advocated sexual liberation as a way for women to break out of this male-imposed straitjacket. The book became a highly influential best-seller.
The women’s movement had some quick successes in Britain. In 1967, abortion was legalized under certain conditions. The Equal Pay Act of 1970 established the principle of equal pay for equal
work. In 1975, the Sex Discrimination Act outlawed discrimination on the grounds of sex or marital status and established the Equal Opportunities Commission. Women also gained the right to maternity leave.
The women’s movement also had an impact in the arts. One of the reasons Duffy wrote Rites was to provide more opportunities for women in the theatre. She was encouraged by the eminent actress, Dame Joan Plowright, who was aware of the lack of contemporary roles for actresses. Duffy’s groundbreaking work was followed by that of Caryl Churchill. Churchill began writing radio plays with socialist and feminist themes in the 1960s. Her first professional stage production was The Owners, produced at the Royal Court Theatre in 1972, and she went on to become Britain’s leading contemporary woman playwright. Other developments that provided more opportunities for women in the writing and performing of contemporary drama were the formation of the Joint Stock Theatre Group in Page 224 | Top of Article1974, and Monstrous Regiment, a theater collective, in 1975.
Rites received less attention from reviewers than Duffy’s novels from the same period, such as Wounds (1969) and Love Child (1971). In general, Duffy’s work in the theatre has been overshadowed by her achievements in other forms, including nonfiction as well as fiction. However, Rites has attracted attention from a number of feminist scholars. In her collection of essays on lesbian writers, Jane Rule’s judgment of Rites is somewhat negative. She argues that the play “reduces people to objects, stereotypes of all the ugliness of heterosexual women whose revenge is ultimately self-destruction.... It is hard to escape feeling an indictment against women, rather than simply against labels.”
Elizabeth Hale Winkler, in “Three Recent Versions of the Bacchae,” discusses Rites in terms of the play that inspired it, Euripides’s The Bacchae. She reaches the conclusion that Duffy’s “overall conclusions are decidedly negative.” Winkler points out that although Duffy critiques the stereotyping of gender roles, she does not point to any positive alternative. There are no female role models in the play. This is in contrast, Winkler argues, to another modern play that also revises The Bacchae, A Mouthful of Birds (1986) by Caryl Churchill and David Lan. That play, in addition to portraying the insanity and violence, also looks at the “more positive possibilities of solidarity, possessive madness, pleasure, and even ecstasy” that are suggested by The Bacchae.
Lynda Hart, in “Introduction: Performing Feminism” (in Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women’s Theatre) draws attention to the beginning of the play, in which workmen silently construct the set that is to represent the women’s lavatory. She calls this a “slow and deliberate pantomime,” and likens it to the theatrical convention of the dumb-show. She argues that the dumb-show device reminds the audience that the space within which the all-female cast act out their drama is created by men: “The ladies room is far from being a liberated space; on the contrary, it is a privilege designed to distort women’s action.”
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses Rites as a creative reworking of The Bacchae, a play by the ancient Greek dramatist, Euripides.
The title of Rites is taken from the play The Bacchae, written shortly before 406 B.C.E. by the ancient Greek dramatist Euripides. In addition to the title, there are parallels in plot and theme between Rites and The Bacchae, as well as some allusions and reversals. Duffy takes care to point out in her introduction to the play that Rites is not a version of The Bacchae, and that “no attempt was made to make it conform to that play.” But she adds that the ancient text does add another layer of meaning to her own play, and makes it less likely that people will dismiss Rites as merely shocking or no more consequential than a dream.
The Bacchae revolves around a conflict between Dionysus, the god of wine, revelry and ecstasy, and Pentheus, the king of Thebes. When Dionysus begins to attract many followers in Thebes, Pentheus tries to stamp out the worship of this new god. He imprisons all the women whom he catches carrying the symbols of the god: wine, an ivy wreath, and a staff. Pentheus also captures Dionysus, who takes human form as a handsome young man. Miraculously, all the women who had been imprisoned suddenly find themselves free, and they continue their Bacchic worship in a glen just outside the city.
Pentheus then imprisons Dionysus, who warns the king that he will bring destruction on himself. Soon after his imprisonment, Dionysus conjures up an earthquake, and Pentheus’s palace is reduced to ruins. Astonished, Pentheus interrogates the freed Dionysus, but a herdsman interrupts him. The herdsman tells Pentheus that Agave, Pentheus’s mother, and a group of her fellow bacchantes are on a nearby mountain, celebrating the god. Dionysus, who seeks revenge on Pentheus, asks the king if he wishes to see the women at their secret rites. When Pentheus says that he does, Dionysus takes control of his mind and tricks him into disguising himself by dressing in women’s clothes.
On the mountain, Pentheus sits in a tall tree to observe the women, but he is easily spotted by the bacchantes, who have been warned by Dionysus
that an enemy is at hand. Led by Agave, the women attack Pentheus in a wild frenzy, tearing him limb from limb. Agave is so blinded by her frenzy that she thinks Pentheus is a mountain lion. After Pentheus’s dismembered body is returned to Thebes, Agave recovers from her mad frenzy and is horrified at her murderous deed. Dionysus returns and exiles Agave and her sisters from the city.
The central conflict in The Bacchae is between two aspects of human nature. On the one side is the desire for order, rationality, law, decorum, restraint, and morality. All these qualities are represented by Pentheus, the king of Thebes. He feels that it is his duty to preserve the city from what he sees as the disruptive influence of the bacchantes. The other side of human nature is the nonrational dimension. It includes sensuality, the abandonment of limits, a sense of oneness with nature, spontaneity, joy, celebration, and intoxication through wine and dance. This is represented by Dionysus.
The Bacchae shows what happens when this primordial, ecstatic Dionysian energy, which is an essential component of the human condition, is ignored or suppressed. The play also shows the harm that results when it is pursued to excess. In The Bacchae, there is no happy medium, no path of moderation.
In Rites, the equivalent of the Bacchic rites of the women of Thebes are the activities of the women in the public lavatory. The lavatory is a female space that men are not allowed to penetrate, just as the bacchantes act out their ritual worship of Dionysus in an exclusively female group on the mountain. In Rites, the equivalent of Pentheus, who claims to abhor what the women are doing but nonetheless jumps at the chance to see their secret rites for himself, is not any of the characters but rather the audience. There is, as Duffy points out in her introduction, a voyeur in everyone: “We should all like to be able to eavesdrop, to know how people behave alone or in groups when they can really be themselves.... Like Pentheus, we want to be shocked and pained.”
There is, needless to say, a marked contrast between the rites of the bacchantes and the rites of this group of working class women in 1960s Britain. As Elizabeth Hale Winkler, in “Three Recent Versions of the Bacchae,” comments:
Instead of the ecstatic night-time dances on the mountains... we find only women engaging in empty, trivial secular rituals such as putting on their make-up in the morning, gossiping about unsatisfactory sex with their boyfriends and singing snatches of banal popular love songs.
If the bacchantes are full of life and a kind of divine madness (not all of which is destructive), the women in Rites are condemned to live stunted lives in settings that are defined for them by men. Their “rites” are exemplified at the beginning and end of the play, when Ada engages in her daily ritual of putting on her make-up with great vulgarity—she repeatedly spits into her pot of mascara and then puts her finger in it—and vainly admiring herself.
It is Ada who is the central figure in Rites; she is the equivalent of Agave in The Bacchae (although in that play Pentheus and Dionysus are the central characters; Agave does not appear directly until near the end). Just as Agave is the priestess of the bacchantes, so the strong-minded Ada is the “priestess” of the public lavatory. As the manager of the facility, she is the one in charge; she decides what is permitted there and what is not. Meg, the attendant and cleaner, treats her with deference.
In The Bacchae, it is Agave who initiates the murderous attack on Pentheus, and so in Rites it is Ada who incites the women in the lavatory to kill the masculine-looking person they assume is a male spy. Of course, there are differences between the two incidents. In The Bacchae, Pentheus really does intend to spy on the women, but the figure who is killed in Rites has no such intention. In The Bacchae, a man is dressed as a woman; in the ironic reversal in Rites, the victim is a woman who dresses like a man. In both cases, however, the situation is one of mistaken identity, and the result is a crazed mob killing. Ada is blinded by her own hatred of men, just as Agave and the bacchantes are blinded by their mad, reason-obliterating frenzy.
There is another parallel between Agave and Ada that goes to the heart of Duffy’s purpose. They are both, as Duffy points out in her introduction, deniers of life. Although Agave is a reveling bacchante, celebrating the god, she has been made so by Dionysus as a punishment for her earlier refusal to acknowledge him as a god. Agave refused to accept that Semele, her sister, had conceived Dionysus as a result of a visitation by the god Zeus. Seen in this light, Pentheus, who also denies that Dionysus is a god, is only repeating an attitude that at first was shared by his mother.
Ada, who is a more developed character than Agave, denies life by reducing sex, the life force itself, to a matter of money. Her contempt for men (whatever men may do to deserve it notwithstanding) has distorted her perceptions and given her a desire for revenge. During the course of the play, her statements about men become increasingly savage and cynical, and her anger is also directed at the women who accept the unacceptable: “I’ll tell you about your kind of love: a few moments pleasure and then a lifetime kidding yourself. Caught, bound, even if you don’t know it.” After the girl who has cut her wrists breaks down in tears, Ada shouts with venom “B———men!” a cry she will repeat twice
more before the end of the play, and launches into her bitterest tirade yet. At this point, Ada is boiling with a rage that makes her, like Agave, quite mad. She is like a volcano about to explode, and her words after the murder, as she gazes at the corpse, are chilling: “Look at it! I’ve seen prettier in the butcher’s shop. Animals. B———men.”
Ada escapes the fate of Agave, who is exiled for her crime, but there is no doubt that she is culpable. Her hatred and rage lead her into the killing of an innocent. But this is not to deny that the play is also an indictment of a patriarchal society that oppresses women, pushing them into a limited range of roles, and so creating the kind of frustration which builds up until violence results.
This pervasive sense of female oppression by men finds a parallel in The Bacchae. The bacchantes are mostly women. Their actions in leaving the city and celebrating Dionysus in the forests and mountains are acts of freedom committed in rebellion against a male-dominated society. This society is exemplified by Pentheus. Not only is he intolerant, authoritarian, and dictatorial, he is also a misogynist. Page 227 | Top of ArticleHis reaction to anyone who opposes him is to imprison them. He has already imprisoned many women, literally tying their hands. He threatens that when he catches the other bacchantes who are threatening his idea of ideal social order (and his power), he will sell them into slavery or make them work the looms in his palace.
In Rites, this is translated into modern terms. Women such as Nellie and Dot tell how they were confined to domestic chores throughout their marriage, and the other women are in a prison of limited opportunities that confines them to low-status jobs that amount to a kind of slavery. On the evidence of the play, the only freedom available for a woman of their social class is to transgress commonly accepted sexual mores and become a prostitute, like Ada. Ada claims that she is independent and free, largely because she ensures that it is she, not the man, who sets the terms of their sexual encounters. But by anyone’s standards, that is a poor definition of freedom, not even coming close to the liberating joy of the bacchantes in the positive aspects of their Dionysian celebrations.
There is one more parallel between Rites and The Bacchae and one significant departure. Dionysus, who plays such a large role in The Bacchae, appears in Rites only as the toddler doll. Duffy explains in her introduction: “I would not have used a real child for Dionysus if I could have had one. A doll is at once more terrifying, more enigmatic and more appropriate, artistically, to the dream idiom.” Dionysus in The Bacchae has long curly hair and an androgynous appearance, and this is also true of the doll in Rites. The women cannot tell whether he is a boy or a girl until they undress him and examine his genitals.
Finally, in ancient Greek drama violence is never shown on stage. The conclusion of The Bacchae is therefore reported by a character who witnessed it. The audience does not see it directly. However, dramatic conventions have changed since that time, and Duffy presents the violence in full view of the audience. It is meant to be disturbing, as the stage directions, referring to a “tattered and broken figure wrapped in bloody clothing,” clearly suggest. Rites, then, may be more shocking than its ancient original, and not only for its violence. It presents an indictment of patriarchy but offers no way beyond it, pointing only to the resulting female rage that harms women and accomplishes nothing. Significantly, the play ends where it began, the mundane “rites” go on—but something terrible has happened in the meantime, and who is to say that it may not happen again?
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Rites, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Duffy, Maureen, Rites, in Plays by and about Women, edited by Victoria Sullivan and James Hatch, Vintage Books, 1974.
Hart, Lynda, ed., Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women’s Theatre, University of Michigan Press, 1988, pp. 9-10.
Rule, Jane, Lesbian Images, Crossing Press, 1982, pp. 175-82.
Winkler, Elizabeth Hale, “Three Recent Versions of the Bacchae,’ ’ in Madness in Drama, edited by James Redmond, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 217-28.
Brater, Enoch, ed., Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights, Oxford University Press, 1989.
The sixteen essays in this collection examine the work of contemporary women playwrights from a variety of angles. Katherine Worth, in “Images of Women in Modern English Theater,” comments on Duffy’s Rites.
Hennegan, Alison, “Maureen Duffy,” in New Statesman, April 17, 1987, pp. 20-21.
This is an interview with Duffy in which she discusses her novel, Change (1987). She also mentions that she started to write novels only because of the difficulty she encountered getting her plays produced.
Hersh, Allison, ’“How Sweet the Kill’: Orgiastic Female Violence in Contemporary Re-Visions of Euripides’s The Bacchae,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 35, No. 3, September 1992, pp. 409-23.
Hersh examines Rites and Caryl Churchill’s A Mouthful of Birds in terms of how they re-present Euripides’s The Bacchae in a different historical context.
Itzen, Catherine, Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain Since 1968, Methuen, 1980.
Itzen examines the history of alternative theatre in Britain since 1968. Alternative theatre refers to small groups that perform in community theatres rather than large commercial ones. Plays performed often have a left-wing political orientation.
Rieger, Branimir, ed., Dionysus in Literature: Essays on Literary Madness, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994.
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This is a collection of sixteen essays that examine madness in literature from a wide variety of critical approaches.
Wandor, Michelene, Carry on Understudies: Theatre and Sexual Politics, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.
This is a study of British women’s theatre from a feminist perspective. Wandor discusses the difficulties faced by women directors, given the fact that authority and leadership have usually been seen as male characteristics.